“All the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much.”
It’s All Too Much by George Harrison
George Harrison was born on February 25, 1943, so I’m going to have a piece of cake while I remember him.
I just finished reading the new biography of Harry Nilsson by Alyn Shipton, titled Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. I knew Harry, off and on, for the last 15 years of his life, but there were great gaps in my knowledge of the man, gaps that this book filled most admirably. In fact, if I had known this much about his life and times before I’d met him, I’d probably have been too intimidated to approach him.
One bit of full disclosure. In the early 90s, he wanted to shop around his autobiography, and I helped him to put together a proposal (I met Harry through the Pythons in general and Graham Chapman in particular); to that end, he sent me what he had written up to that point. I helped him package it and helped him send it around, but there were no takers, so I sadly sent it all back. But his family held onto it long enough for Shipton to mine it for quotes and other information.
Dominating a huge portion of that life, of course, were the Beatles, particularly John and Ringo, though there are some wonderful anecdotes about Paul and George as well. It’s worth reading for that reason alone, but his life crossed so many other paths that I could scarcely believe my eyes.
His childhood was spent shuffled from relative to relative, crossing the country alone at a frighteningly early age, until he wound up working as a bank manager. He kept that job even after he started finding success as a singer-songwriter, but shortly after he left it, the Beatles famously described him as their “favorite group.” He went on to major Grammy-winning success, but his success did not serve him well. He was a major part of John Lennon’s “lost weekend,” during which Lennon produced his “Pussycats” album, but drink and drugs took their toll on his personal life and on his amazing voice. I know people who encountered Harry during this period, and they described a different man than the Harry I knew. Of course, I knew him after he had mostly quit drinking, and that had a huge positive affect on him and his family.
During his prime, he was turning out iconic hits like “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You” (both written by others), while writing songs that others made into huge hits (Three Dog Night’s “One”). But he refused to be pigeon-holed, and his albums are incredible mixtures of rockers and old standards and everything in between. Yet he prided himself for never playing live concerts, and for the most part, he remained true to that.
Nilsson does an amazing job of analyzing nearly every song he recorded (Shipton is a music writer), though I would have liked to have read more about his personal life, and his life after 1980 is given particularly short shrift. Then again, those were seemingly the saddest years for Harry, at least professionally, when his health began to suffer and his finances suffered because he trusted people he shouldn’t have trusted. I enjoyed reading Nilsson until around 1980 for that reason–then it became a little too painful. But I know the 80s were his happiest family time with his family, making up for what he never had, so I’m not sure Harry regretted them.
It should also be noted that he spend time in the 80s campaigning against Handgun Violence after John Lennon was assassinated, so even though he had mostly retired from music, he stayed active. He did appear at a number of Beatles Fan Conventions and sang (usually two or three songs) to raise money for the charity. Near the end, to repair his finances for his family, he was even planning a concert tour, but his ill health prevented that from happening. And frankly, his voice was not what it had once been, either, after those years of abuse. But Harry was still Harry, and I’m sure his personality could have made up for any musical lapses.
It’s such a cliche to say that “his music lives on,” but the new episode of HBO’s Girls featured the cast dancing to Harry’s provocative “You’re Breakin’ My Heart.” He would have loved that, but I’m sure he knew he would be remembered regardless. And thanks to Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, I was able to spend a few more hours with Harry.
After an afternoon of working on taxes, I’m planning to kick back to watch the Beatles special on CBS tonight. I thought it was worth mentioning that Eric Idle is also going to be a part of it, narrating a few segments and doing whatever else needs to be done to help pay tribute to the Fab Four. In addition to being a member of Monty Python and being a close friend of George Harrison, Eric, of course, created The Rutles. (And I’m sure I don’t have to explain to any Beatles or Python fan who the Rutles are. Right? But if you’re still not certain, click here.)
It’s interesting to see art imitating art this way. Eric once told me of how he was filming a scene for The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (now out on Blu-Ray!), dressed in mid-60s Beatle-ish attire, when a frantic fan came up to him, begging for an autograph. She was convinced that she had just met one of the Fabs, even though none of the real Beatles had looked like that in 10-12 years. But she didn’t care, so Eric obliged her with an autograph, and she went on her way. What she failed to realize was that, standing next to Eric, was George Harrison, dressed for his role in the film as a TV interviewer.
Eric also told me about another occasion, when he and (fellow Rutle) Neil Innes were visiting George at his home in Henley. Ringo showed up, and the four of them (two Beatles and two Rutles) sat around singing Rutles songs. The older I get, the more I see how life is becoming a mash-up–and I can’t think of a better example.
At any rate, the Beatles special includes a Rutle–and I think all of the Beatles (and Rutles) would be happy.
It was 50 years ago this weekend that the Fab Four arrived in America. Me? I didn’t have a clue. But once I did, I made up for lost time.
I missed their first appearance. But when I got to school Monday morning, the day after their historical appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was all that anyone else in Miss Langbehn’s class could talk about.
After spending the next week hearing about little except The Beatles, I was determined that I wouldn’t miss their second appearance coming up again on Sunday night. I would be staying at my grandparent’s house, but I extracted a promise that we would have to watch Ed Sullivan that night. They gamely agreed, and I planted myself three feet from the black and white screen.
When they came on, I studied them closely. I wasn’t sure what they were, but I knew they were different, that things were changing. And when I returned to school the next morning, I joined in the conversation.
That week, my parents announced they were raising my weekly allowance, from ten cents to twenty five cents. I immediately spent the entire allotment on five packages of Beatles bubble gum cards, and they immediately questioned their judgment. (I still have the cards, which are now worth considerably more than a nickel, though I’m not planning on getting rid of them).
Then, I decided to get a Beatle album. It would be my first LP ever, a milestone of my childhood. One was cheaper than the others, so I grabbed it and went home to listen, and realized I had been ripped off. The voices coming out of the tiny, tinny speaker were not the Beatles. There were four Beatle songs and six songs nobody else has ever heard of, and none of them were sung by the Beatles. I read the liner notes on the back cover, which started with “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and knew I had been robbed.
As soon as I could scrape together the money, I immediately ran out and bought “Meet the Beatles”–the genuine article. That was more like it. It was my second LP.
The rest was history, the kind of history that so many of us shared, watching The Beatles develop and grow, just as we developed and grew. I never saw them in concert–I was a little too young–but they were a huge part of my life then and now. I never met them, although I was delighted beyond words to meet and hang out with George Harrison on several occasions (as I’ve written about elsewhere on this site–thank you Monty Python).
I once did a radio interview with Frank Gorshin, best known today for his appearances as The Riddler on the ’60s Batman TV show. But before that, he was best known as an impressionist. He also performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, so I couldn’t resist asking him about it. The moment I did, I could tell he wished I hadn’t brought it up. Simply put, it was apparently not one of the highlights of his professional career. Of course, no one else on the show that night did very well either, as the audience was filled with teenaged girls who were only there for one reason. And it wasn’t Frank Gorshin.
My first LP is long gone. But I still have my second LP, and I’m not planning on getting rid of it, either.
It was January 30, 1969 that the Beatles last performed in public, a 20-minute concert on a London rooftop.
I’m sure that LET IT BE, the documentary film, will eventually be re-released to theatres and DVD. There are some who say that Paul and Ringo aren’t in any hurry, as it was filmed during what became the final breakup of the group. But just about everything else they’ve ever recorded is out there or likely to be, so we can only hope that this is in the queue. In the meantime, this is the best we can do.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian opened in New York the year after shooting wrapped in Tunisia. It was a soft opening at first–it was slipped into one theatre and ran largely without controversy for several weeks. Then in September, the Pythons themselves all flew into town (and so, naturally, did I). They kept to a rather busy schedule, doing lots of TV, radio, and press interviews to promote the film, which was getting great reviews but also upsetting a few folks (Graham Chapman told me “There are some people whom one would wish to offend”). While I was walking to their Central Park South hotel, I saw a full-page tabloid headline from one of the smaller newspapers–I can’t recall precisely what it said, but it seemed a little jarring to see a full-page headline devoted to the film. When I got back to their hotel, I ran into one of the people with Handmade Films. When I told her about it, she was quite interested, so I promised to get her a copy if I could find one.
Not long afterward, I found and bought the last remaining copy I could find of the tabloid, and dutifully headed back to the hotel. For some reason, there were dozens of people gathered in front, but I brushed past them and made my way to the elevator. I rode up to the suite that was serving as base camp for Handmade and knocked on the door. A smiling John Goldstone, the film’s producer, opened it and said hello. “Hi, John,” I smiled, and brushed past him, heading toward the adjoining room. I had planned to drop off the newspaper and leave. John appeared a little uneasy, but I was moving too quickly for him to stop me.
Then, from the far corner of the room, I heard someone call “Howard? Howard Johnson?” I turned to see George Harrison grinning back at me.
I was a little stunned. The one and only time I had met George was nearly a year ago, in Tunisia, during the slightly chaotic evening that I wrote about last week. I hadn’t noticed him, but he recognized me! I later realized that in addition to our conversation, he probably recalled me from the Python fanzine that I had given him a year ago. If he could remember that, he was a serious Python fan.
We chatted for a few minutes, then John Goldstone politely interrupted George and reminded him that they had an appointment for lunch. I rode down the elevator with them, with George chatting away. I asked him about the rather large crowd in front of the hotel, whether it was for him, but he shook his head “no” and speculated that it was for The Who, who were playing their first concerts since Keith Moon’s passing. When we got to the first floor, he didn’t seem to want to leave. But business called, and they slipped through the lobby to the adjacent Stork Room, avoiding the crowd outside.
Later that day, I came down the elevator with another guy who looked vaguely familiar. We got off and he walked outside, into the crowd, which swarmed around him for autographs. I thought it might be Kenny Jones, who was filling in as drummer for The Who at the time. So I asked an enthusiastic member of the crowd, who gasped breathlessly “That’s Bruce Springsteen!” He was playing that weekend for the No Nukes concert. A lot happens in New York…
I was a little surprised I hadn’t recognized him, but not particularly bothered. Riding in an elevator with Bruce Springsteen was anti-climactic after visiting with my pal George.
As long as I’m keeping track of Python anniversaries, it was on this date, way too many years ago today, that I first met George Harrison. (It’s easy to keep track of these sort of things when you publish your journal–otherwise, I’d be hopeless.)
I was on the set of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in Tunisia, and we had been filming for 4-5 weeks. George had famously stepped in when the original backers of the film backed out (actually, chickened out is more accurate). He simply wanted to see the movie, and so agreed to bankroll the entire production. That’s the kind of bloke he was.
There were rumblings on the set that the executive producer (George) would be flying down for an overnight visit. (“He wanted to see how we were spending his money,” quipped Eric Idle.) But as time went on, it grew dark and we had to wrap for the day. Some of us headed to the downtown hotel to watch the rushes. The screen and projector were set up, but there was more milling around than usual, and it became obvious that they were being delayed for a reason. I overheard Eric mention that they’d like to hold out a few minutes longer so that George could see them, and so we waited even longer. But finally, we could wait no longer and they began.
About halfway through. there was a slight commotion in the back as a small group entered the room. I could make out Eric and his wife, and a couple of other people. They found seats and settled in, but there was still an air of excitement in the room. But the rushes played on, to much laughter, and notes were made. When they drew to a close, the audience stepped out of the small room, and people mingled outside the production office. I took the opportunity to slip George one of my Monty Python fanzines, and he thanked me and continued talking to Michael Palin.
I decided to grab a drink in the bar, and a few minutes later, George and Eric entered. George began thumbing through my Python zine, joking and making general comments about it. I was happy to discuss it with him briefly, and he asked if I was joining them for dinner. “Sure,” I said, being no fool. As it turned out, George and his then-business partner, Denis O’Brien, had decided to buy dinner for some of the cast and crew, and he included me in the group. We had drinks while the large table was set up in a separate room, then we filed in and found a seat.
Drinks soon materialized, and George made a toast: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow the money runs out!” he joked. He pulled out a photo of his baby son Dhani, and showed the group. Baby Dhani was dressed in a miniature Gumby suit, thanks to his Uncle Eric.
Meanwhile, someone thought it would be a good idea to send in a Tunisian band, but the volume was obviously too much for the small room. George showed a producer’s ingenuity by grabbing a bread roll, tearing off a couple of small pieces, and shoving them in his ears until the musicians were politely dismissed. It was, as the Brits would say, a very jolly evening.
And, it wasn’t over.
Next: George and I become pals.